Shifflett Pleads Guilty to Charges
By Liz Mitchell
December 15, 2006
Charles Shifflett admitted in court Thursday that it was better to take a deal and plead guilty than face a trial.
The 55-year-old pastor of First Baptist Church of Culpeper was scheduled for a series of four trials, beginning Jan. 17, on seven felony charges of physical and sexual abuse against children.
Dressed in a blue jacket, gray pants, a white shirt and red tie, Shifflett stood before Judge J. Howe Brown Jr. in Culpeper Circuit Court and pleaded guilty to one felony and six misdemeanors related to child abuse.
In previous proceedings, his case has attracted a large crowd. But this time, it ended quietly with only a few attending.
The highly publicized case was added to the docket only days before, when Shifflett decided to sign the plea.
His case began about one year ago when the Culpeper County Sheriff's Office arrested him on charges of cruelty and injury to children. That led to a trickle of other arrests from citizen obtained warrants and more investigation. He was facing physical and sexual abuse charges against children that occurred up to 20 years ago at his former church - Calvary Baptist - and its adjoining private school. In September, he pleaded not guilty to all charges.
After months of negotiating, the commonwealth and defense counsel came to an agreement that is now signed by Shifflett and his victims.
By pleading guilty to the felony charge of cruelty to children, the commonwealth agreed to amend the remaining six charges to assault and battery - misdemeanors. The agreement also means Shifflett will not serve any time in jail.
With his hands clasped in front of his stomach or sometimes in his pockets, Shifflett stood tall and answered the judge's questions.
He said he decided to plead guilty on his own and understands by doing so that he gives up certain rights, including the right to defend himself and appeal his case.
"Are you entering the plea because in fact you are guilty of these crimes?" Brown asked.
Shifflett said no. His lawyer, Samuel Higginbotham II, of Orange, reminded the judge that Shifflett was using the Alford plea, which allows him to state he's innocent but acknowledge sufficient evidence exists that could be used to find him guilty.
Shifflett agreed with the judge that when weighing the situation it was better to sign the plea agreement than take his chances with four separate jury trials, which could have resulted in a total sentence of up to 35 years in prison.
"The court can take it as a guilty plea," Brown said. "But once you are found guilty, you are guilty. Do you understand that?"
"Yes, sir," he replied.
In closing arguments, Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Tom Smith said the felony charge relates to incidents in 1992 involving Chad Robison. Robison, 30, was the first victim to come forward in the case and involved in the first charge brought forth against Shifflett by investigators.
"Shifflett acting in his capacity as administrator of a private school would withdraw Robison from school to cut trees down," Smith said. "The defendant would ridicule the victim, tell him he had to work faster and stand closer to the tree that was being cut down. So close, that its branches hit his person while it was falling."
Higginbotham said the case has been difficult for all involved.
"It takes a lot for a gospel man to accept a felony," he said.
One of the reasons, the commonwealth agreed to the plea, Smith said, was because the charges stemmed from incidents at least 10 years ago. Plus, the evidence on the sexual charges, were primarily one person's word against another, which are generally difficult to prove.
On the felony charge, Brown sentenced Shifflett to five years in prison, with all five years suspended based on conditions.
Shifflett is not allowed to ever use corporal punishment, he can never be in the presence of a child, except his grandchildren, unless an adult over 21 is supervising and he will be on supervised probation for two years.
On the misdemeanors, Brown sentenced Shifflett to 12 months in jail on each charge, with all of it suspended. Shifflett is also required to perform 700 hours of community service, which would be supervised by probation with Criminal Justice Services until it is complete.
Commonwealth's Attorney Gary Close said the commonwealth agreed to the plea for three reasons: for Shifflett to admit guilt, to bring the victims closure and to ensure he couldn't harm children in the future. He said the victims did not have to agree to the plea but they did.
"I don't think 700 hours of community service is easy but obviously it was a compromise," Close said. "That is a part of it and to that extent I guess we thought to trade that for the certainty of conviction and closure for the victims. I am not concerned about him committing any other crimes out in the community, I don't think he poses a public safety threat."
Shifflett was released on the conditions of his plea after submitting a DNA sample, which all convicted felons are required to do. He refused to comment following court proceedings.
Close hopes the case teaches the community a lesson.
"I hope it sends a message that no one is above the law, including ministers," he said. "And I think also we ought to watch our children at all times."
Liz Mitchell can be reached at 825-0771 ext. 110 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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